Missouri has a strong tradition of non-partisanship in public education. Our governing bodies for public educational institutions, from the State Board of Education to our local school boards, are structured to avoid partisan politics. This legal foundation is based upon the belief that the goal of providing a quality education for all students is not partisan in nature.
The debate over COVID-related issues in the past year has created a new divide in some Missouri public school boards. Inflamed by partisans at the national and state level, conservative and progressive parents have clashed over when and how to conduct school amidst the pandemic. This political fervor has led conservative and progressive groups to become more involved in school board races and in the decision-making processes of their local school boards.
Unfortunately, this polarized debate seems to have led to a division in some boards that will potentially endure long after the pandemic is behind us. As battle lines were drawn surrounding COVID-related issues, some board members formed voting blocks that fell largely along lines associated with state and/or national political parties. For these boards, votes regarding a number of issues have been made based upon political alignment rather than the specific proposition being placed before the Board.
Over the years, Missouri schools have faced numerous challenges and developments without becoming partisan. Boards have exercised local control based upon community expectations without the direct influence of political parties at the state and national level. Board members through the years have avoided the temptation to follow state partisans and have made decisions as representatives of the community, not as agents of a particular political party. They have also avoided the temptation to create issues for their board where the anecdotal outcries of their political party at the state or national level do not apply locally.
The next flashpoint for Missouri local school boards may well be the debate over critical race theory, an academic movement that critically examines the law as it intersects with issues of race. There is a growing concern among conservative groups about the theory and/or related curriculum being taught in Missouri’s public schools. The issue has already become very divisive in other states including Texas, Utah and Oregon. This flashpoint could drive the political wedge in Missouri’s schools yet deeper and boards may once again become the central battleground for the culture wars being waged in America. Further partisan division in the board room, coupled with attempts by some partisans to exacerbate issues that are not arising in most Missouri schools, may well result in a permanent shift to partisanship in local school board decisions. Such a shift would permanently and substantially detract from the non-partisan goal of a quality education for all students.
As we close out this school year, and reboot for next year, Missouri public schools are at the edge of a political precipice. Whether they realize it or not, school board members are going to make a choice. If they continue down the path of partisanship, Missouri’s public schools may be irreversibly divided by the notion that there is a “Republican” or “Democrat” way to run a public school. The partisan rancor and polarity-driven gridlock that are associated with politics at the state and national level will become a part of how we locally decide what is best for our kids in our communities. Let’s hope school board members who are heavily influenced by partisan politics realize what is at stake before it is too late to turn away from this particular cliff.